Antibiotic Resistance: Have We Misused God’s Good Gift?

For years now there has been a building alarm about antibiotic resistance among those who study disease, medicine, and globalization. Wonder drugs like methicillin were rendered ineffective by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) within a decade. In hindsight, 10 years without serious resistance was an incredibly long time. Newer breakthrough drugs like ceftaroline led to resistant bacteria within a year. Both the amount and rate of resistance are growing and making matters worse, as the development of new drugs to take the place of ineffective ones has slowed to a trickle. The CDC says that antibiotic-resistant bacteria already sicken more Americans than cancer.

The broader public has finally begun to catch on. In 2013, the New York Times warned of more than 20,000 deaths a year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Last year, the BBC announced: “World on cusp of post-antibiotic era.” Finally, last month, the United Nations met to discuss the threat that these so-called super bacteria pose. The document prepared by that meeting is remarkable. In it, the high-ranking members of the UN state that they:

Acknowledge that the resistance of bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal microorganisms to antimicrobial medicines that were previously effective for treatment of infections is mainly due to: the inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines in the public health, animal, food, agriculture and aquaculture sectors; lack of access to health services, including to diagnostics and laboratory capacity; and antimicrobial residues into soil, crops and water: within the broader context of antimicrobial resistance, resistance to antibiotics, which are not like other medicines, including medicines for the treatment of tuberculosis, is the greatest and most urgent global risk, requiring increased attention and coherence at the international, national and regional levels.

“The greatest and most urgent global risk.” In a world of Ebola, Zika, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, lack of access to clean drinking water, and lack of global healthcare, the UN recognizes that the world’s greatest health risk comes from the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The problem is serious, growing, and complicated. Why this is happening? In part, resistance is the result of an abused gift.

The advent of antibiotic drugs was a medical miracle to a degree that has not been matched in our lifetimes. Infections that were life-ending became easily treatable. Antibiotics are a redemptive gift. God’s blessing and provision through science has equipped us to be able to stop suffering and prevent disease. But we found the power of antibiotics too alluring and we began to overuse them. As the generations who first received the gift of antibiotics have passed, we began to use these gifts in ways they were never intended to be used. Antibiotics are a regular part of animal feed—not to prevent illness, but to speed growth. Antibiotics are prescribed for non-bacterial infections constantly. As recently as 2013, 73 percent of patients diagnosed with bronchitis in the United States were prescribed antibiotics, despite the fact that we have known for decades that zero percent of bronchitis cases are caused by bacteria.  

Another reason why this is happening is that we mistakenly believe all bacteria are dangerous germs that need to be killed. As Ed Young writes in I Contain Multitudes, we are an ecosystem filled and covered with huge numbers of bacteria. We depend on them for our health. They essentially serve as another organ. Every dose of antibiotics wreaks havoc on our microbial organ. Any time we are offered a course of antibiotics we should respond with, “Are you sure that is absolutely necessary?” When it is necessary, receive the gift with a grateful heart. But don’t take a drug that will damage your microbial organ simply to feel better more quickly.

We should have known resistance to antibiotics would happen. God’s creation is so busting with life that every effort to suppress it is doomed to failure. In the end, life always defeats death, even if in this case human death will be the result. This is not a problem that we can run from. As we seek to do the redemptive work of Christ, we too need to reduce suffering and protect life. How we do that will be different in the future. As Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is upon us. World leaders have recognized the risk they present. It is time for the rest of us to do the same.

Comments (6)

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I am a biologist and a Christian, too, but I certainly don’t see the situation with antibiotics has carrying any spiritual overtones, not like this anyway. An abused gift? Science strives to always learn more and improve life. All that we learn is a gift from God. The next discovery is around the corner.

There are plenty of “gifts” that have been “misused.” Just look at gunpowder. The invention of gunpowder by the Chinese has now led to a horrific gun culture in the United States.

Is the rise of anti-biotic resistant microbes in the world a big issue? Yes. Is it the spiritual issue the author implies? I don’t think so - it is another in a long line of human failings due to sin and selfishness.

I think you’re missing something here. Antibiotics are not “creating” super bugs.  They were always there, but just the minority.  Let’s say that an antibiotic drug is 99.8% effective and   is applied to someone with 1,000,000 bad bacterial cells.  That means that it will kill off 998,000 of them and leave 2,000 of them behind that are resistant to the antibiotic and free to breed and multiply. Since they had the resistance in their DNA already, the majority of their offspring will also be resistant. Now that drug that was 99.8% effective is pretty close to zero percent effective. Now, a new antibiotic needs to be created to combat the survivors, because the original wasn’t designed to work against them.  And why would it when there was so few?

The threat of antibiotic resistance has been known for at least 30 years and should have been suspected soon after 1943 when Watson and Crick discovered how DNA “worked.” Money is the god of this world and short term profits are all that matters. As Dr. Keynes noted, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

In Reply to Mary Kay Radnich (comment #29270)
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Hi Mary,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I like you comment a lot and find it very interesting. You start by saying that the antibiotic resistance problem doesn’t have any spiritual overtones.

I guess that I see spiritual overtones almost everywhere in my work. If this is really God’s good world, broken and twisted by sin, and if we believe that through Jesus Christ EVERYTHING is being made new, then these things should matter to every topic in biology. I think that part of my job (and part of your job) as a person of faith working in science is to help our brothers in sisters in the lab and those in the pew to see that truth. Everything matters to God.

Then you say that the next discovery is around the corner. I certainly hope so! The thrust of the article is to use the gift of antibiotics wisely while they are still here but we should all hope and pray for the next miracle drug.

You end with the idea that antibiotic resistance is a result of sin and selfishness. I couldn’t agree more. But those are spiritual terms applied to a scientific problem. I suspect we agree more than you might first think. I just use different language.

Thanks for reading.

Clay

In Reply to SSolheim (comment #29271)
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Hi Solheim.

Of course. Perhaps I should have used more careful language like, “lead to increased frequency” instead of “led to” but your point is well taken. Thanks for sharing the science with those who are interested. We could add horizontal gene transfer and biofilms to the discussion, but the basic idea is as you describe.

Clay

I think it is essentially important to distinguish “spiritual disobedience” from “lack of omniscience” when discussing a topic like this.

I regard the discovery and application of penicillin as a good thing, even if at some point we learned that, in a macro kind of way, it was being used more than was wise, macro speaking.  But that lack of wisdom was probably just a lack of wisdom, aka lack of omniscience, not a spiritual failing.

Hey, it may turn out that decades from now, it will become clear that smart phones like the one I’m using right now, and posting to blog sites, like I’m doing right now, had the macro effect of making the human population stupid and lazy, and that we should have stuck with some configuration of “simple living"instead. If It turns out that way, will all of us (article author and commenters) have spiritually failed by “misusing God’s good gift”?  I sure dont think so.

Lack of omniscience, a human condition even if the fall had not occurred, necessarily means we must, both in the micro and macro, engage in trial and error (emphasis on ERROR), at least if we are inclined to improve the human condition, and I believe it is spiritually good to be so inclined.

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